Enjoy digital ownership and public libraries while you can: they may disappear soon…

Michael E. Karpeles, Program Lead on OpenLibrary.org at the Internet Archive, spotted an interesting blog post by Michael Kozlowski, the editor-in-chief of Good e-Reader. It concerns Amazon and its audiobook division, Audible:

Amazon owned Audible ceased selling individual audiobooks through their Android app from Google Play a couple of weeks ago. This will prevent anyone from buying audio titles individually. However, Audible still sells subscriptions through the app (…)

Karpeles points out that this is yet another straw in the wind indicating that the ownership of digital goods is being replaced with a rental model. He wrote a post last year exploring the broader implications, using Netflix as an example:

What content landlords like Netflix are trying to do now is eliminate our “purchase” option entirely. Without it, renting become the only option and they are thus free to arbitrarily hike up rental fees , which we have to pay over and over again without us getting any of these aforementioned rights and freedoms. It’s a classic example of getting less for more.

He goes on to underline four extremely serious consequences of this shift. One is the end of “forever access”. If the company adopting the rental model goes out of business, customers lose access to everything they were paying for. With the ownership of goods, even if the supplier goes bankrupt, you still have the product they sold to you.

Secondly, the rental model effectively means the end of the public domain for material offered in that way. In theory, books, music, films and the rest that are under copyright should enter the public domain after a certain time – typically around a century after they first appeared. But when these digital goods are offered using the rental model, they usually come wrapped up in digital locks – digital rights management (DRM) – to prevent people exiting from the rental model by making a personal copy. That means that even if the company offering the digital goods is still around when the copyright expires, this content will remain locked-away even when it enters the public domain because it is illegal under copyright laws like the US DMCA and EU Information Society Directive to circumvent those locks.

Thirdly, Karpeles notes, the rental model means the end of personal digital freedom in this sphere. Since you access everything through the service provider, the latter knows what you are doing with the rented material and when. How much it chooses to spy on you will depend on the company, but you probably won’t know unless you live somewhere like the EU where you can make a request to the company for the personal data that it holds about you.

Finally, and perhaps least obviously, it means the end of the library model that has served us so well for hundreds of years. Increasingly, libraries are unable to buy copies of ebooks outright, but must rent them. This means that they must follow the strict licensing conditions imposed by publishers on how those ebooks are lent out by the library. For example, some publishers license ebooks for a set period of time – typically a year or two – with no guarantee that renewal will be possible at the end of that time. Others have adopted a metered approach that counts how many times an ebook is lent out, and blocks access after a preset number. Karpeles writes:

Looking to the future, as more books become only available for lease as eBooks, I see no clear option which allows libraries to sustainably serve their important roles as reliable, long-term public access repositories of cultural heritage and human knowledge. It used to be the case that a library would purchase a book once and it would serve the public for decades. Instead, now at the end of each year, a library’s eBooks simply vanish unless libraries are able to find enough quarters to re-feed the meter.

The option to own new digital goods or to access the digital holdings of public libraries may not be available much longer – enjoy them while you can.

Featured image by Bilorv.

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